Opinion Think

From the Cave to the Echo Chamber

In part two of an exploration of radically networked societies, we examine how the evolution of human behaviour landed us in this Age of Outrage.

Read Part 1 on human nature and Part 3 on the contemporary Nation-State.

We’ve been on a head-spinning journey through human evolution. We’ve figured out how our biology influences how we form groups. In this article, I’ll talk about what we do once those groups are formed: about behaviour. I will attempt to answer the question: why is there so much outrage on social media, and yet so little long-term engagement?

It’s a big question, so I’ll address it in two parts. First, individual behaviour. Second, group behaviour. Individuals collect information, process it, and do things with it. Groups do too – but they go about it in a very different way than individuals.

Meet Ug

A few thousand years ago, a rather beefy member of genus Homo, species Sapiens, (who went by the rather uninspiring name of Ug) covered his hand with pigment and applied it to a rock. He outlined the shape of a fantastic creature: a man with the head of a lion.

Figure 1. The Lion-Man of Stadel. 40,000 years old, it is the earliest evidence of human religious belief.

Think about what a strange action that is for any creature to do. The shape is not an actual thing. It has little physical meaning by itself. Ug never saw anything like what he’s trying to represent. There is no tangible benefit to him from making that shape. But the shape represents a concept. An idea that this human has, and that it can convey to other humans.

Our friend now proceeds to get down on his knees and entreat the lion-man for his blessings and a good hunt.

What happens when the rest of this Stone Age Andy Warhol’s group show up to examine his masterpiece? Their eyes observe the symbol. It goes to their working memory, where it is associated with instinctive emotional reactions. Then the brain processes it a little bit, associates it with meanings, and perhaps sends it to their long-term memory. There, it will interact with other memories and ideas and contribute to their Narrative Selves (“Hmm. Modern art is horrendous. And why is Ug praying to it? What is it, a god? Not for me.”) and Social Selves (“I had better tell Ug that it’s nice and join him in praying or he’ll whack me and I’ll look bad in front of the group and that’s not good.”)

Ug’s friends join him in the Cult of the Lion-Man.

What’s at play here? First, the initial sensory input. Secondly, the instant instinctive emotional reaction. Thirdly, deciphering the symbol. Fourthly, integrating that into individual and social selfhood and other mental constructs. Finally, action.

Now, is it natural for Ug and co. to be hanging out near the rock praying to a symbol? They could be hunting or eating or copulating or sleeping instead. Their biology evolved for these reasons, not to turn them into the world’s first art connoisseurs. This biology, which is so good at collecting stimuli, learning, abstract thought, and communication, makes them versatile and effective reproductive organisms. It just so happens that can also do this. This enables a whole new way for them to cooperate and organise.

(Ug later proceeds to lead a conquest of the neighbouring tribes demanding submission to the Holy and Exalted Lion-Man.)

Meet Jacques

Many thousands of generations later, Ug and the Lion-Man Crusade are long forgotten. A descendant of Ug (whom we shall call ‘Jacques’) sits down in the French city of Rheims. He has in his hands a marvellous device: a printed book.

Remember Ug’s Lion-Man symbol? In the millennia since this brain-wave, many humans across the world have come up systems of symbols which represent intangible concepts. They associate them with certain sounds, which they call ‘words’. They string them together with certain rules, which they call grammar. This enables them to convey very complex ideas, and coordinate in extraordinary ways. Humans have, thanks to this, become the dominant species on Planet Earth.

One of the things that humans do with symbols is write them down on pieces of paper and bind them into ‘books’.

The thing with books, up to this point, is that they were written. One had to employ a scribe who knew how and where to arrange the symbols, and it was a difficult and time-consuming process. As a result, many people lived quite happy lives without ever seeing a book.

The printing press has changed all that: now it is very easy, even socially desirable, to own and read lots of books.

Think about that. A society that incentivises reading. All of a sudden, the Social Self sits at rapt attention and says “I had better read, or else people will think I’m an ignoramus.”

What, exactly, is reading? Remember Ug’s art critic of a friend (whom we shall call Pug), and his thought process. Jacques, while he sits with his book, does something similar. He scans the symbols. He feels an emotional response to them (pretty limited, since they are just letters). He deciphers them. He integrates them into his mental constructs.

Figure 2. Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th Century.

What’s new? Jacques is ignoring other stimuli around him, which early humans couldn’t afford to do. He’s engaging in a sustained manner with a large set of ideas. All of these are slowly assimilated into his mind, forming memories and ideas, interacting with each other and coming up with new ones. These feed into his Narrative Self. When Jacques feels strongly about something, he expresses it by going to a coffee-shop and debating. (They don’t use swords, because the behavioural norm, which the Social Self follows, is polite conversation.)

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together

Jacques’s little daughter can’t read. What she can do is eat, run, and sleep. These are instinctive behaviours, coded into her DNA. She doesn’t need to be taught.

She’s going to have to learn how to read: to interpret signals, to ruminate, and to overcome her instincts to search for external stimuli and concentrate on a book instead.

Jacques learnt all these things as a snotty little tyke. Interestingly, the longer and more frequently he did these, the better he became at them, the more habitual and automatic they became. Why? Thanks to the biological foundation of the proverb ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ – neuroplasticity.

The brain is made up of neurons. Each neuron is connected to a bunch of other neurons. Their interconnections are called neural pathways. But not every neural pathway is equally strong – the more a certain pathway is used, the more those neurons are used together, the stronger the connection becomes. So the more often you do something, the stronger the neural connections that you use to do it. Which means that you become better and better at doing it.

Jacques’s brain is literally shaped by the way that he consumes information, by the way that he engages with it. He is used to engaging with ideas that unfold over a course of a book. His brain is good at grappling with them and integrating them into his selves, and using them to guide his behaviour. It’s used to sitting quietly, concentrating, developing itself first. It’s what it does.

If Jacques happens to have read Rousseau’s Social Contract, sitting quietly in his library, he’s going to be rather more cynical about kowtowing to a king, even if everyone around him is. Plus, a wide social acceptance of the value of freedom of expression makes it less dangerous to be a non-conformist (unlike poor Pug).

A well-formed Narrative Self can go against the mandates of the Social Self.

And keep in mind that Jacques isn’t the only person who’s doing this – reading and rumination are all the rage in post-printing press Europe. Literacy, owning, reading, and discussing books, led to an intellectual explosion of unprecedented rigour. This period is called the Enlightenment for a reason!

Meet… You

The Enlightenment is well in the past, Jacques and Ug are long forgotten, but their genetic legacy is still alive and kicking in all of us.

As Nick Carr points out in The Shallows, our senses still demand stimuli. Our brains still need time to process, decipher, and assimilate symbolic meanings. Our neurons are still ‘plastic’ and get better at repeating tasks. We are still thralls of the Narrative and Social Selves.

Let me walk you through a scenario. You have a five-minute break while at work. What are the odds you check your smartphone, look at your messages, flick through Facebook or Twitter? Scrolling through your social media feed, what do you see? Pictures of people you know, things they’re saying, things they’re doing. Striking headlines that tempt you to click on them. Memes. All of these convey much more information, much faster than Jacques and his book.

Let’s say you click on an article. Do you read it the same way you read a book? How do you engage with the information? You scan it for interesting tidbits. You are propelled from one hyperlink to another. Once you’re finally done, you leave a ‘like’ or a ‘comment’ and move on to the next.

Often we share without reading, comment based on headlines, dispense emojis that give us a nice little feeling every time we have done something. We mould our lives based on the social signals that we are bombarded with every second – from what we should wear to how we should date, to what happiness is, to who we are, from history to science – what ‘influencers’ think and do is more important than actually figuring things out for ourselves. Why is that? Why are we so confused and unsatisfied in a “stream of consciousness” that allows humans to be social animals, to coordinate more effectively than we ever have?

To explain this, let’s compare Jacques and you.

Step Jacques You
Sensory Perception of a symbol Symbols organised into books that had to be purchased, requiring time to process and engage Symbols coming at you non-stop left, right and centre, designed to make you click or pay attention
Emotional Reaction to a symbol Yes, but in moderation. Too many symbols, too many emotional reactions
Assimilation of symbolic meaning Quite a lot – thanks to the availability of time. Feeds into Narrative Self. No time! Symbol after symbol, meaning after meaning. Rely on emotional cognition to process it all.
Behaviour Strong Narrative Self – can sometimes defy social mandates

Action requires considerable effort

Strong Social Self – cannot defy social mandates easily

Action requires minimal effort

The sheer volume of content that you’re exposed to on social media means that your brain simply does not have time to assimilate all of it, and use that to shape its behaviour. Much of this content is designed to be flashy and attractive. It is meant to seize your attention for long enough to generate a little ad revenue, and then let go. Seconds spent not clicking on links are seconds wasted, from the perspective of Internet giants.

Of course, we are hardly innocent bystanders in the spectacle. Our senses demand stimuli. We want to be distracted by an easier, flashier world, which rewards clicks and “likes” with satisfying haptic responses. A world where we are constantly up to date with what our friends or favourite celebrities are doing and buying, and where we feel the pressures of social selection if we don’t immediately conform to the norm.

But precisely because we are constantly bombarded with content, we don’t have the time to use higher cognitive functions to react. Instead, we rely, again, on our automatic emotional processing. Social media is not structured to give you the time to mull over anything, to really develop your Narrative Self. You must rely on social, animal, emotional instincts – to decide whether these stimuli are worth paying attention to, and determine how to react. You are incentivised to just do what everyone else is doing, and feel nice about it.

Since our marvellous brains get better at things that they do often, we end up being great at consuming tons of information. The downside? We get really, really used to reacting instinctively and socially to everything, without deeper reflection.

The Cult of Outrage

So we’ve come a long, long, way from Ug. Our biology, which developed in the natural environments of forests and savannahs, is not adapted to our latest, self-created environment: the digital world. There’s simply no time for the broad contemplation and social questioning that kicked off the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, which brought us to where we are today.

The danger of social media lies in how it warps individual behaviour and enforces conformity to new norms.

Compare a modern social media group to Ug’s tribe, or Jacques’s group of coffee-shop intellectuals. Most members of the group are used to consuming tons of information all day, every day. They don’t know what is true and what is not. On top of it, all this information is curated by algorithms to ensure that only the content that is most likely to resonate emotionally with them is seen by these members.

As a result, members are only exposed to certain kinds of narratives, which shape their identity as part of the group.

But it doesn’t end with that. Recall how Pug went along with the Lion-Man for fear of getting his head bashed? Or how Jacques felt comfortable disagreeing with other viewpoints at his coffee-shop? Both of these required physical presence in order to convey social signals. In the comfort of their home, in their private space, they could do whatever they wanted. Social media, however, has practically done away with private spaces.

Not only do individuals not have the time to become individuals, but strong social signals are constantly conveyed by social media – travel here, do these things with your friends, look like this, eat this, buy this. By choosing to share the details of their lives online, they ensure that they’re constantly monitored to ensure that they stick to social norms.

There are other cues as well. Behavioural cues. Talk like others talk. Engage like others engage. Behave, politically, like other people behave.

Figure 3. The change.org homepage.

Consider the online petition. All one has to do is go to change.org and set up a petition. Other people who care about petitions go to change.org, where they see the most popular and successful petitions. These appeal to them emotionally. It would also send a positive social signal to sign something that a number of people have already signed. So one clicks to show one’s support, is rewarded by a satisfying graphic, and feels the glow that comes with a soothed conscience. Neither the petitioner nor the signature feels obliged to actually engage with the problem, since they put so little into engaging with it in the first place.

Margets et al, in Political Turbulence (2015) argue that this applies to any sort of political activity. Whether it’s liking or sharing a video, the fundamental emotional triggers are the same. The response is primarily emotional, or instinctive (since there’s so much content to choose from). There’s no time to send the information to long-term memory, to ruminate and integrate it into our Narrative Self. Instead, the Social Self tells us, just do what everyone else is doing.

So the engagement with the problem, while rapid (read: instinctive/emotional), doesn’t last long enough to effect change. Instead, what happens is that we rely on our primal herd instincts, and focus on doing what everyone else is doing. And herds are notoriously easy to rile: fear, disgust, and shame are triggers that provoke them into action. But what sort of action?

  1. Everybody has consumed emotional content, to which they react emotionally.
  2. Everybody watches everyone else react emotionally, so they keep reacting emotionally.

Social media develops little bubbles of conformity where signalling outrage – with a simple click or tweet – provides enough satisfaction to allow us to feel like we’re doing something without actually doing anything. And as we do this more often as a society, social media outrage becomes the norm.

The Troll

Now that we know how norms are formed, how are they enforced? This brings us to the essential feature of the social media landscape: trolls.

Why do trolls troll? Undoubtedly, they harbour deep resentments which they have no better way of getting over or expressing. But consider this: most trolls wouldn’t dare say the things they do online to people’s faces – because they would receive strong social signals, not excluding a thrashing. For them, anonymity offers the boon of zero reputational costs. Because they don’t receive any social signals to stop them from terrible behaviour online, they do it.

However, the very fact that trolls get away with terrible behaviour online provides a signal to otherwise polite people that they can also lower their standards of behaviour. Once trolling behaviour is established as an acceptable response, people use it to enforce norm conformity. And that is really easy, since social media allows us to know who’s toeing the line, and who’s not. Thus the gradual debasement of online political debate.

Conclusion

The last two articles have developed (I hope) an understanding of the biological foundations of human behaviour, how and why we form groups, and what those groups do. I’ve also dwelt on how social media is changing all that. The next article in this series will further explore what this means for modern politics, and attempt to figure out what democracies can do about it.

This is a three part series which explores radically networked series. Read Part 1 on human nature and Part 3 on the contemporary Nation-State.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.